Friday 20 December 2019

A discovery journey with Colchagua Singular

Chilean wine industry is pretty much a 80/20 rule. Over 80% of the export market is shared among the big producers like Concha y Toro, Errazuriz, Montes and Santa Rita which represented only around 20% of the 350 wineries. The smaller guys are often out of the radar of international markets and critics. In 2017, 12 producers from Colchagua, one of the three zones within Rapel sub-region in Central Valley, established Colchagua Singular, an organisation to support each other and to craft a space in the Chilean wine export market.

Colchagua Singular only welcomes wineries producing no more than 50,000 bottles per year and grapes must all be sourced within Colchagua. In addition, the owners must involve actively in all processes of winemaking from viticulture and cellar work to sales and marketing. United, they become a bigger voice to show the world what is happening in Colchagua.

Chile maybe a narrow country but the climatic difference between east and west can be significant because of its topography — the Andes mountain range in the east and the Corderillas de la Costa (coastal mountain range) in the west. Colchagua measured only 120km from west to east, a large part of which is sandwiched between these two mountain ranges with hot Mediterranean climate but the vineyards in Peradones, at the west side of the coastal mountain and just 20km from the Pacific coast, are cooled by winds blowing off the cold Humboldt current from Antarctica. Similarly, vineyards around San Fernando, pretty much at the foothills of the Andes, enjoy high diurnal temperature because of the cold air from the mountain.  The coastal mountain, about 500m above sea level, has jurassic soil mainly of granite and slate, and higher humidity while the Andes has lower humidity with younger and more clayey soil. Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon may be the dominant varieties but there are also Carignan, Cinsault, Pais and Semillon.

Most of us associate big red wines with Colchagua but Colchagua Singular, championing innovation and character, produces some original, exciting wines from old vines and unusual blends. Some of the members are grapegrowers venturing into winemaking or from total different trade. They are still finding their styles but already making promising wines. Winemaking is a skill and anyone can produce a well-made wine after learning. However, not everyone can make a wine with soul if he does not have the passion. Watch out for these guys from Colchagua. Their production may be small but they have big hearts.

Colchagua Singular invited four persons from four different countries for a four days visit. I was one of the lucky ones and here are my impressions of the members.

Maturana Wines
José Maturana from Maturana Wines is one of the most experienced member of the group. He was the former winemaker at Casa Silva since 1998 but decided to make his own wine in 2011. His winery is at his parents’ house close to San Fernando, the capital of Colchagua, and sources grapes from 32 ha of vineyards spread across the region, including a 1910 vineyard planted with Pais, Muscatel Negra, Semillon and Riesling in Peradones. José co-ferments the grapes and makes Pa-tel, an aromatic fruity red wine with only 12% alcohol. Close by is the 4ha, 1928 Semillon vineyard that José makes into a single vineyard wine. The 2018 wine had 40% skin contact for four months, is textural with white fruits aroma and a mineral note.

MW, a blend of Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon, is Maturana’s flagship wine. Carménère is the majority grape and we tasted the 2018 Carménère components from both concrete tank and old 500l barrels prior to  the 2016 vintage. I can see why this is the flagship - a classic wine with complexity and structure.

José also sources grapes from Maule and there are two pleasantly surprise wines. Negra is 100% San Francisco grape planted in 1938. This variety was not recorded in Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes published in 2012 and according to Decanter in 2018, it was only identified recently in Bío Bío. It was the first time I tasted it and it reminded me of Gamay and Cinsault! The other one is VOX - Viognier Oxidativo (oxidative style Viognier), fermented in old oak for 10 months with topping up but not protected by inert gas. It is fresh with a savoury palate which is untypical of Viognier in a positive way!

Villalobos is pretty much an accidental winery. Sculptor Enrique Villalobos discovered an abandoned Carignan vineyard among the trees in his land. They are bush vines planted in 1945. French winemaker Mathieu Rousseau then made an experimental wine in 2009. When this wine was awarded the Best Carignan of Chile by Descorchados Guide 2011, the rest is history. Villalobos is now making three wines and Martin, Enrique’s son quit his full time engineer job and focuses on making wine at this family estate.

Viñedo Sivlvestre is 100% from the abandoned Carignan vineyard. The family leaves the vineyard as it is when it was discovered with no use of chemicals or irrigation. Harvest is manual and they have to use ladders or sit on other’s shoulders to pick the grapes. Even so, only 60% of the grapes can be picked and the rest have to leave to animals. We tasted the 2017 vintage, an elegant wine with only 12% alcohol dominated by red fruits (plums, sour cherry, raspberries) complemented by a peppery note.

Zarrito Salvaje is an equal blend of Cinsault and Pais from Maule. Pais was the most widely-planted grapes in Chile until 1990s and it is usually made into rustic and thin red wine because of high yield. However, given proper vineyard management, it can be made into promising wine. The 2016 vintage has integrated tannin with a mix of red fruits and herbs.

Vinos Lugarejo
Elina Carbonell is another unintentional winemaker. When the family returned to Chile after a stint in the US, they decided to plant grapes and made wines. Since husband Fernando is a historian and a university professor, the winemaking responsibility falls on Elina. The brand is called Lugarejo which means a remote place and the label is based on a 1643 drawing of the area where the house/winery is located. They have only 0.1ha at their house (Mourvèdre and Carménère), and source grapes from her mother-in-law’s vineyard. The first vintage was 2014 Merlot with only one barrel and this year they expanded to 4,500 bottles. The wine is mostly sold at restaurants in Santiago and Elina aims to double the production eventually. I love the winery set up with all the mini tanks and a tiny basket press!

We tasted their first vintage of the three-year-old Mourvèdre from barrel which is better that I expected with pleasant floral note and candid fruit. Pais 2017, where grapes were sourced from the cooler Peradones, is unpretentious and agreeable.

My favourite is Zafarrancho, meaning brawl or quarrel in English. It is a blend of all the leftover wine that Elina translated as a noisy blend. Most winemakers will tell you how they select the best wine for the flagship or reserve wine but they won’t tell you what do they do with the wine that doesn’t make into the selection. Elina was frank to say that they can’t afford to waste any wine therefore they make Zafarrancho and they are not ashamed of it. The 2018 vintage was a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carménère, the best leftover wine I tasted with flora and pepper notes.

Without any prior winemaking experience, Elina said they make wine following instinct. They believe wine is for sharing and not necessarily to pair with any special meal therefore it should be fruitier. Therefore, they pick the grapes earlier for the maximum fruit expression and to avoid high alcohol otherwise the all wine will taste the same. I found Lugarejo wine delicate and certainly happy to only drink them on its own.

Raúl Narváez from Fanoa Family Vineyard is one of those half-crazy, enthusiastic winemakers. He purchased his 22ha plot of land in 2009 and planted only 2.3ha with vines in 10 years on a gentle slope, which include 14 varieties in high density planting - 12,121 vines/ha to be exact. The varieties range from Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon to Tempranillo and Sangiovese as well as Viognier and Pinot Blanc. The vines are Gobelet pruned to around 1kg yield/vine to give 12 tons/ha though he admitted that 12,000 vines/ha is a bit too much and will reduce it to 10,000 vines/ha in future planting. Further up the slope, Raúl planted Montepulciano under trees to provide shade and restrict water supply. A firm believer of biodynamic farming, he also grows tomatoes and peanuts following Rudolf Steiner’s principle.

Fanoa’s first wine was made in 2016 under the name Seis Tintos (Six Reds), a blend of his most favoured six grape varieties of the year. The blend changes every year to allow for creativity and the 2017 blend we tasted is Malbec, Petit Syrah, Carménère. Tempranillo, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon, a delicious wine with black fruits and sweet spices and integrated tannin. The label is a vine with shoots pointing up to the stars and roots pointing down to the name Fanoa. The stars represent biodynamic farming while the shoots are working hands and the roots anchor to the family. Fanoa is the abbreviation of the family - FA for family, N for Narváez, O for wife Ángela Ovalle, and A for associates referring to the children.

We also tasted Raúl’s wine from tanks. Cosmos Rosé 2019 is a Malbec-Tempranillo-Mourvèdre blend, with an attractive pale salmon colour, a deceptive floral and perfumey nose but dry with a touch of salinity on palate. My favourite is Cosmos Carignan 2019 which has fresh bramble and rhubarb aromas and a nice concentration. The wine would only be bottled in a few weeks and Raúl was very kind to bottle one for me to take home.

La Pascuala
We were greeted by a charming and honest young couple at La Pascuala. They are only in their second year of winemaking but the family has been grapegrower since 1998. Daughter and winemaker Daniela, was frank about her wine. The first vintage was made in stainless steel tank and no barrel but she was not too happy about it. With the guidance of a different consultant, she experimented with old barrel and both commercial and wild yeast fermentation in 2019 vintage. She is still learning but one thing she is sure, at least now, is that she doesn’t like new oak.

Although inexperienced, Daniela was passionate and curious. She built tinajas (clay jar) and made wine in them in 2018. An equal blend of Carménère and Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine is fresh with attractive fruit and floral notes and integrated tannin. The other wine worth a note is Artesana blend 2018, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Carménère and Carignan.

During the barbecue lunch at the in the vineyard of La Pascuala, Daniela’s brother asked me about if family is an important marketing message in the world of wine and I answered yes or no depending on the level of involvement of the family. Then later I found out that the whole family is involved in the business. Father Benito set up the winery and makes the tanks (he runs a metal factory) and the uncle manages the vineyard. The entire family including sisters were preparing our barbecue lunch and taking photos. This level of family commitment is a good story to tell and I am sure they will shine.

L’Entremetteuse is headed by French winemaker Laurence Real who spent 21 years perfecting her winemaking skill in Chilean big producers before establishing her own winery in Apalta in 2015. Her goal is to make wine that connects people with the Chilean landscapes. Laurence only makes around 12,000 bottles split into three lines:  Pet Nat, Rouge & Jorge (natural wine) and L’Entremetteuse with lively labels of people enjoying wine (single varietal and blended wine).

Nerkihue is a family estate based in Lolol. The father started the vineyard
from scratch and made only one classic blended wine, Justo. When sons Bernardo and Loreto joined the business in 2010, they created a second label Quiebre, meaning a break from tradition and consisted of a range of youthful single varietal wine with no new barrel. By the way, Bernardo is also a professional musician. We exchanged ideas on connecting wine and music. I hope one day I can organise a winemakers’ Wine Music Jam!

Javiera Ortuzar Wines is the brainchild of Javiera Ortuzar, who makes three wines from two varieties: carbonic maceration Syrah and Petit Verdot, as well as a Syrah-Petit Verdot blend with minimum intervention under the name Impetu. The wines are fresh, juicy with a pleasant mouthfeel.

Daniel Wiedertehr is an ex-banker from Switzerland and dedicated to making his own wine, Viña Nahuel, in the heart of Colchagua Valley. He practises biodynamic farming and dutifully follows the phases of the moon to ensure his wine is the best expression of the land. Chak 2015 is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a 1942 vineyard with bright fruit, velvet tannin and fresh acidity, while the Nahuel 2015, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère, Malbec and Syrah, is laden with spices and mints supported by a sturdy mid palate.

Left to right: L'Entremettteuse, Nerkihue, Javiera Ortuzar Wines, Viña Nahuel

Cultra Vinos is a joint venture between two winemaker friends, José Luis Reyes and Marcial Berrios in the Lolol Valley. The Chiflao Pais 2017 is made from 150 years old grapes from a dry farmed vineyard. Pais was the forgotten grape in Chile used mainly for bulk and rosé wine that were tart and astringent. Cultra Vinos’s Pais is a proof that when the vines are taken with care, Pais can be made into concentrated and serious wine.

Viña Travesia (means journey of the project) was founded by Juan Canales in 2014 with only the family vineyards, a refurbished winery and no winemaking experience, hence the name Travesia. His Infiltra 2017, a 100% Carménère is impressive with rich fruits that carried through to the palate.

Francisco Caroca is a viticulturist based in the red wine town of Marchigüe who sells most of the grapes to big producers. He created his label Bodega Caven in 2011 and now making three wines: Caven Uno, Caven Dos and Caven Tres, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Carménère juice for the health-conscious and kids.

Left to right: Cultra Vinos, Travesia, Bodega Caven
Colchagua Singular is like a breath of fresh air in the Chilean wine industry dominated by big producers churning out technically well-made, reliable but somewhat predictable wine. Their wines may not be all of star quality but they have individuality and characters. They are artisan wine made with passion. They are also generous and we were treated with home cooking in several occasions. They were thoughtful to have organised a farewell lunch at Pasaje Punta de Lobos so we could experience the Pacific Ocean influence. I am thankful to have spent four days with them despite the fact that I had to spend another four days travelling. It reminded me why wine has a special place in my heart.

Except for Maturana Wines who has an importer in China, none of their wines are available in our part of the world.

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